Insights Into the Archives

The Theo Westenberger Archives are complete records of all the photographs this artist took throughout her life, from her earliest amateur images in 1971 through her MFA show and her entire professional career, ending with her last born-digital assignments in 2007. There are 400 linear feet of materials, including negatives, transparencies, contact sheets, and prints. Westenberger used an extensive range of black-and-white and color film types, printing papers, toners, and cameras. Study of these materials offers insight into the tools and techniques available to a professional photographer in the late twentieth century prior to the industry’s adoption of digital cameras and printers.

Westenberger learned and practiced film developing and printing at Pratt Institute, but in her professional life she did not develop or print her own work. She engaged photo labs to make her commercial and portfolio prints and worked closely with experienced printers to produce her fine art prints. She kept her test prints and many—with printers’ annotations—are now part of the archives. The variety of prints, using different papers and chemical toners, reveals the laborious and expensive nature of producing the perfect silver gelatin print. In addition, many photographs are printed with irregular borders created by hand-crafted negative holders.

Westenberger was an early adopter of new printing technology. She was fascinated by the new digital “Iris” printer developed by Nash Editions in Los Angeles to produce fine art prints on heavy watercolor paper. In 1994 Nash Editions scanned and printed some of her hand-colored photographs of Italian gardens. The Autry has about fourteen of these rare original digital prints.

The Theo Westenberger Archives are records of the work of a professional editorial photographer from 1980 to 2000. She shot for such influential magazines asTime, Life, and Newsweek, which were important national outlets for news and opinion. A large amount of material remains for most of the assignments and in them we can see the scope of each job, the test shots, the lighting choices, the edits, the magazine’s selections, and secondary edits by Westenberger that isolated her favorite images. We can tell who were considered the most popular stars of the time from the images chosen, duplicated, and syndicated by her photo agents, Gamma Liaison and Sygma.

The Westenberger Archives also provide insight into the competitive nature of editorial and advertising photography in this era. Westenberger excelled at self-promotion.

She shot clever and humorous self-portraits to send as Christmas cards and printed her own black-and-white and color cards, known as “promos” or “mailers,” to send to prospective clients. Photographers maintain portfolios to show their work to advertising agencies and magazines. The Autry is lucky to have twenty-one of Westenberger’s portfolios, which represent and display the variety of marketing techniques and portfolio materials used by professional photographers from 1980 to 2004. Westenberger had custom-made photo albums lined in marbleized paper and portfolios made from red ostrich skin, lime green leather, and brushed aluminum.

We have taken steps to stabilize and preserve the materials in the Theo Westenberger Archives, which documents the career of a late twentieth-century female photographer with roots in California. The archives are now accessible to future photographers, researchers, publishers, and scholars, ensuring that Westenberger’s significant talents, commercial success, and intriguing fine art work will continue to inspire.

For more information about accessing the collections, contact the Libraries and Archives of the Autry at rroom@theautry.org.